The SAT Reading section can be discouraging because it features challenging narratives from the 1800s, historical passages chock full of academic vocabulary, and science passages with multiple tables and graphs to interpret. However, you can tackle them effectively when you use a combination of reading and test-taking strategies.
Any student preparing for the SAT will benefit from reading over these strategies, but that is not the most effective way to prepare. Instead, use these strategies alongside an actual reading passage. We have put reminders throughout this post to encourage you to do that.
It’s important to use these strategies every time you complete a practice reading passage. When you practice the strategies often, they will become habits you can rely on. Here’s a checklist you can use to monitor which strategies you’re using for a passage. It can help you while you’re still learning them, but eventually they should become second nature--available at your disposal no matter how nervous you are on test day.
For practice passages, we recommend going straight to the source -- the College Board. We like using this Official SAT Book or the College Board website (here’s the sample reading questions). Go ahead and pick one out now.
Strategies to Use Before Reading the Passage
1. Read the questions. Just read the questions, not the answers. Take note of what you will be looking for.
There will be a mix of questions that ask you to understand the passage as a whole (main idea, purpose) and questions that are incredibly specific (identify the meaning of a word). These questions are the only things you need to know about the passage.
Let that take some pressure off you as you read. You do not need to fully understand every word or sentence of the passage to succeed in answering the questions.
2. Read the introductory information. Yes, that italicized, tiny text before the passage? Don’t skip it. It’s tempting to rush over it, but at the very least it can provide important context (if the passage is from 1837, you can expect that it will be more difficult to read than a more modern text) and at most, it can provide information that is essential to understanding the passage (for example, it may define a key vocabulary word used in the passage’s description of a scientific study).
Go ahead and do these 2 steps for your sample passage before moving on.
Strategies to Use While Reading the Passage
3. Skim the passage. You already read the questions, so you know that there are, at most, about 10 things you need to know about this passage. Therefore, it’s not important for you to understand every single word or sentence.
4. Jot down a summary or a few words next to each paragraph. Write down a few key words (5-10) that describe what happens (narrative passages) or what is discussed (science or social science passages).
If a new character is introduced in a passage, write down who it is. If the narrator’s mood or topic shifts in a paragraph, that’s important. If you come across anything that reminds you of a question--Oh, I kind of remember a question about competing economic theories, and this paragraph summarizes one of them--take note.
Don’t spend a lot of time on this part; you’re just getting ideas down that you can refer back to when you are answering the questions.
Go ahead and do these 2 steps for your sample passage before moving on.
Strategies to Use After Reading the Passage
5. Read the questions again and answer them before looking at the answers. This is the most important step for your success. It is so important for keeping you focused on the right answer instead of the distractors (we’ll talk more about those later).
Come up with an answer in your own words.
Go back to the passage if you need to and find a piece of evidence that supports your answer. Do not move on until you have your own answer, even if it feels like a guess. In my work with SAT students, I find that most students answer most questions correctly when they can put it in their own words.
Stop: have you chosen your answer for the first question without looking at the answer choices?
6. Choose the answer that best matches yours. This seems so easy, right? You’ve already come up with the right answer; just choose it! But for many students, as soon as they start to read the answer choices, they begin to doubt themselves. Don’t let that happen to you. Trust your instincts and trust the passage. The answer you choose should have some piece of evidence from the passage that supports it.
7. Eliminate distractors (answers that are 80% right or are correct but don’t answer that specific question). The writers of the SAT Reading section have a tough job: they need to create questions that only have 1 right answer, but the other answers have to be close enough that some students will pick the wrong answers.
They do a good job of making the wrong answers attractive. One technique they use is to make the answer start off correct.
For example, you read a passage about a scientist studying the evolution of Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos islands. The passage focuses on the many different environments the finches live in, the different food supplies available on different islands, and the natural disasters that affected food supply. Then it explains how all of these things led to many different species of finches with specialized beaks.
One question might be, “How does the author explain the speciation of Darwin’s finches?” A good distractor would be “the many different environments the finches lived in led to conditions that caused the development of similar beaks.” The answer starts out correct--your brain will automatically connect with “different environments” since you just read about it--but it ends incorrectly because the finches developed different beaks.
Another technique they use is to make the answer a correct statement about the passage but not a correct answer to the question.
Let’s use the finch example again. One question might be, “What is the main idea of the passage?” A great distractor would be “natural disasters affected the food supply available to the finches.” Is it true? Yes. But is it the main idea of the passage? No--it certainly supports the main idea, but it’s only one component.
Read the answer choices on your practice passage. Which ones can you eliminate because they are only partially true? Which ones can you eliminate because they are true but don’t answer the question?
8. Make your final choice the answer that is 100% right and can be supported with evidence from the passage. After you have gone through your process of elimination, you should ensure that you were not tricked by a distractor.
Read the question again. Did you pick the answer that is 100% correct? Does it sufficiently answer the question? Can you find a sentence from the passage that supports that answer?
Doing this last step can sometimes even save you time since sometimes the next question will ask you to choose the sentence that provides the best evidence for your previous answer!
What about timing?
You may be worried that using all of these strategies will slow you down significantly. You may wonder if they are worth it. If you practice these strategies every time you practice reading passages, you will get more and more efficient.
Additionally, you won’t need to use every strategy on every question. If you immediately find an answer that matches your own, you may not need to focus on process of elimination. Save working through every “after reading” strategy for the really tough questions and passages.
What strategies have you found most helpful in preparing for SAT Reading? Which of these are you going to start trying?
Preparing for the SAT or ACT can be stressful and overwhelming. If you want additional support as you navigate this important exam, reach out to us for information on 1-on-1 coaching.